It seemed like Egypt and Ethiopia were close to reaching an amicable agreement. Now, they may be on the verge of a conflict. Ever since Ethiopia began building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011 on the Blue Nile River, one of the major tributaries of the Nile River, Egypt has been sounding alarm that the massive dam, worth $4 billion USD, would cut water supplies to its 100 million people, especially during periods of drought. Ninety percent of Egyptians depend on the Nile for their freshwater consumption.

Egypt has been sounding alarm that the massive dam, worth $4 billion USD, would cut water supplies to its 100 million people.

Over the past few years, authorities in Cairo have been trying to negotiate an agreement with Addis Ababa to ensure that the latter guarantees the dam is filled slowly and that it supplies sufficient amounts of water to Egypt after completing the dam. Last year, Egypt invited the U.S. to facilitate talks over the dam with Ethiopia.

A January 2020 draft agreement seemed like a fair compromise to all parties. Under this deal, Ethiopia would adjust its filling and operation of the dam during periods of drought to ensure that Egypt and Sudan – another downstream country that is dependent on the Nile River, receive enough water. It would allow Ethiopia to fill GERD in stages during the summer rainy season. The three countries were close to finalizing the agreement by the end of February by putting finishing touches on safety and dispute resolution provisions.

However, Ethiopia walked away from the agreement on February 26, invoking its lack of readiness to embrace the deal and necessity for additional consultations. Ethiopia was particularly irked by the U.S. assertion that “Ethiopia should not start filling the dam without reaching an agreement.”

Afterwards, Cairo and Addis Ababa exchanged recriminations and pointed fingers at each other for the failed deal. Egypt insisted that Ethiopia was purposely stalling the talks from moving forward, while Ethiopia put the blame on Egypt for poor negotiations and for involving external powers, such as the U.S. and World Bank. At this juncture, they seem to be on the path toward conflict.

The involvement of the U.S. and the World Bank was not only an exercise in futility, but seemed to entrench Ethiopia’s position.

The involvement of the U.S. and the World Bank as facilitators of the talks between Egypt and Ethiopia was not only an exercise in futility, but it also seemed to have entrenched Ethiopia’s position on the dam. Having accused the U.S. of favoring Egyptian arguments in the dispute and pressuring Ethiopia to sign the February agreement, the authorities in Addis Ababa now plan to expedite the completion of the dam and start filling it this July in defiance of Egypt’s warning against such moves.

While the president holds a largely ceremonial role in Ethiopia, where the prime minister wields all the political power, Ethiopia’s first female president, Sahle-Work Zehde, has been more than just a symbolic figure in dealing with Egypt over GERD. Sahle-Work Zehde is a trained diplomat who did not seem to be interested in a political career before her election in October 2018.

During her tenure as president, she has embraced the reforms implemented by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has been instrumental to GERD’s completion. Notably, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to solve the 20-year-old military conflict with Eritrea. But despite their diplomatic backgrounds, Sahle-Work Zehde and Abiy Ahmen have been hawkish and nationalistic in their positions on the dam.

Sahle-Work considers GERD a unifier of the Ethiopian people and a great economic opportunity for her country. This position conforms with her vision to eradicate poverty in her country, which she outlined at the beginning of her presidency. After the failed compromise with Egypt, she has been pushing for completion of GERD ahead of schedule and commencing its operations this year. This March, Sahle-Work started a community fundraising program to support the project’s early completion.

Sahle-Work considers GERD a unifier of the Ethiopian people and a great economic opportunity for her country.

In an effort to shore up international support for GERD, Sahle-Work launched an international tour to explain Ethiopia’s stance on the dam. She is leading a delegation within Africa, while her predecessor Mulatu Teshome is aiming to meet member-states of the European Union. While Ethiopia complained about Egypt’s involvement of a third party in the dam negotiations, it appears that Addis Ababa prefers the African Union’s intervention in the dispute rather than that of the U.S.

Ethiopia’s prime minister is actively seeking South Africa’s mediation. South Africa currently chairs the African Union, a regional political body that includes 55 countries and promotes greater unity, solidarity, common interests, and political and economic integration of the continent.

Insisting that its approach to the use of the Nile River is equitable, the Ethiopian government claims that Egypt has misunderstood the situation. Although Addis Ababa considers a diplomatic approach essential to resolving the disagreement with Cairo, it is sticking by the dam even if it triggers a military confrontation with Egypt. Ethiopia has made it clear that it was ready to defend itself.

Cairo continues to pressure Ethiopia to fill the dam gradually and to commit to an annual minimum amount of water to meet Egypt’s needs. Egypt has also been trying to gain international supporters for its cause. Recently, member-countries of the Arab League issued a resolution that criticized any “infringement against Egypt’s historical rights to the water resources of the River Nile.”

Cairo continues to pressure Ethiopia to fill the dam gradually and commit to an annual minimum amount of water for Egypt’s needs.

Ethiopian authorities decried the Arab League’s statement for blindly siding with Egypt instead of promoting negotiations with Ethiopia. The International Crisis Group predicts a possible confrontation between Egypt and Ethiopia if the crisis is not mitigated and managed. With increasing tensions, nationalistic sentiments are getting stronger in both countries.

At the end of the day, Egypt and Ethiopia want an equitable solution and cooperation on how to share the Nile despite the latest frictions. Both are open to further talks. Ethiopia wants negotiations without the undue pressure by third parties, such as the recent U.S.-brokered deal.

The International Crisis Group, a non-profit focused on research and analysis of global crises, considers a jointly appointed mediator as the best way to reaching an agreement that would suit the conflicting parties. Under the growing tensions, it is crucial for both countries to moderate their aggressive tones and concentrate on negotiations. Neither of them wants or can afford a bloody war.

 

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